7 Steps to Setting Up for a Still Life Drawing

Lush pomegranates in closeup. (cc) Rick Hawkins

Still life drawing can really be rewarding. Too often, however, we find ourselves struggling with dull arrangements that are difficult to make interesting. Pieces of fruit in a bowl, a bottle of wine - it can easily be the same-old-same-old.

Remember that a still life can be of any object or group of objects, so don't get trapped into the traditional subject matter. To create the best still life drawings, you also need to think about lighting and the background as much as the subject. To do this, follow a few simple tips and tricks.

How to Set Up for a Still Life

The point of constructing a still life set is not to waste your time, but to give you a realistic foundation from which to base your drawing. If you do not have to imagine or guess what light may be falling on your scene or what a background may look like, it's easier to draw. 

Still life drawings in this manner allow you to get the correct perspective, bring out shadows, highlights, and texture, and experiment with compositional elements. All this happens before your pencil even hits the paper! In the end, it saves you time and it's a fantastic practice you can use to develop your artistic skills.

  1. Choose your location. A good directional light source is the key to a strong drawing or painting and a lamp or bright window is perfect.
  2. Adjust the lighting. If the room lighting is diffused, use a board or shadow box to control the light falling on your subject. You might need to be creative and use a reflective material like kitchen foil wrapped over a board to reflect light or blankets and cardboard boxes to block it. 
  3. Think about your background. Architectural features such as a window frame or a door can add direction to a composition. A tone that contrasts with the subject is useful. Drapery can be a bit cliche, so use it carefully.
  4. Decide on a surface. A woodgrain table can look great, but only if you're confident with handling the detail as taking shortcuts on textures can really weaken a drawing. A beginner might be better using a tablecloth. Choose a plain one if you don't want any extra detail or a broad check or stripe pattern to add a little color without going overboard.
  5. Choose your objects. Beginners should avoid oddly shaped objects that might look 'wrong' even when you get it 'right'. Machine-made objects demand an accurate rendering of form and perspective. However, a casual or distorted look can work, when handled with confidence. 
  6. Arrange the group. When arranging, consider compositional elements and avoid bland central positioning and symmetry. Avoid just piling fruit in a bowl - let it spill from a bag, or be half-eaten on a plate. Give flowers a history - tucked in a hat, strewn in the gutter, or by a headstone.
  7. View your arrangement through a viewfinder. It can be as simple as an empty frame cut out of a white or black board. This will block out all distraction and allow you to assess the composition and consider its placement on the paper.

4 More Tips for a Successful Still Lifes

  • If using natural light, take photos to refer to once the light starts to change.
  • Also take photographs if using perishables (especially flowers) or where your work may be disturbed.
  • Transparent and reflective objects, such as bottles and metal objects, can be challenging but are an excellent exercise in detailed observation.
  • Fruit is a great start as the natural shapes are a little more forgiving and give you interesting textures to work with.